Wednesday, February 8, 2012
A quick peek at Clayton Kershaw's future
By David Schoenfield
The awesome Baseball-Reference.com lists something called "similarity scores" for each player. Originally introduced by Bill James, similarity scores takes a player and compares his basic statistics to other players, starting with 1000 points and subtracting points for degrees in difference in various categories. It doesn't adjust for era or ballparks so isn't necessarily meant to be serious sabermetric analysis, but it is a fun tool.
Anyway, here are Clayton Kershaw's top 10 most similar pitchers through age 23:
1. Vida Blue
2. Dontrelle Willis
3. Hal Schumacher
4. Ramon Martinez
5. Jimmy Dygert
6. Dean Chance
7. Dave Boswell
8. Ismael Valdez
9. Al Mamaux
10. Ken Holtzman
Some of these guys had excellent, long careers like Blue and Holtzman. Others developed arm problems and never matched their early dominance (Martinez, Chance, Boswell). Two were pitches from the first two decades of the 20th century (Dygert, Mamaux).
Anyway, none became Hall of Famers. Which I promptly tweeted.
Does this mean we should be worried about Kershaw's future? There's an old axiom that too many innings on a young pitcher's arm may not bold well for a long career. Of course, teams are more careful about the workloads they give to young pitchers now than even 20 years ago. Martinez, another young Dodgers ace, pitched 234 innings at age 22 -- not much different than the 233 Kershaw just threw at age 23. However, Martinez had at least eight games of 130-plus pitches (we're missing pitch counts for a few other starts as well). Kershaw's high game at age 22 was 118 pitches and he exceeded 120 just twice in 2011.
Kershaw is a pretty unique talent, so I didn't necessarily like that list of comps. Here's another list. Most strikeouts through age 23 since 1947:
1. Bert Blyleven
2. Dwight Gooden
3. Frank Tanana
4. Larry Dierker
5. Sam McDowell
6. Fernando Valenzuela
7. Don Drysdale
8. Felix Hernandez
9. Clayton Kershaw
10. Gary Nolan
11. Dennis Eckersley
12. Catfish Hunter
Now, I think Dodgers fans will agree that's a little better list, with four Hall of Famers. Not incuding Kershaw and Hernandez, Nolan had the fewest wins on the list at 110. He was a dynamic talent who battled shoulder injuries after dominating in the majors at age 19.
Gooden, of course, also dominated at age 19 and won his Cy Young at age 20. We don't have pitch totals for those early years, but we do have them from 1988, Gooden's age-23 season. He had eight games of 120-plus pitches, including one with 138 and another with 131. Actually, not too bad. But who knows how many pitches he had thrown from 19 to 21, when he averaged 248 innings per season.
Stating the obvious: the Dodgers have done a terrific job handling Kershaw's workload, slowly ramping up his innings from 171 to 204 to 233. That's no guarantee he'll have a long and healthy career -- and he'll have to prove he can handle the 230-plus innings year after year like Hernandez has shown the past three seasons -- but the Dodgers have done everything possible to protect their prized left-hander. There's no reason not to expect Kershaw to contend for a few more Cy Young trophies.
The Dodgers open the season April 5 in San Diego. Their home opener is five days later against the Pirates, so Kershaw should start that one as well.
I know it's been a rough year for Dodgers fans, but let's hope they show up en masse to support their Cy Young winner. I know I'll be watching.